All deaths in the Alaska wild are not the same.
When someone goes looking for danger and ends up dead, that’s on him or her.
But when people are tempted into tragedy by the idea that what they are doing – no matter how personally thrilling to them – seems pretty safe, a little of that is on all of us.
Two people have now died crossing the Teklanika River on the north side of Denali National Park and Preserve trying to reach a bus that has become a shrine to a dead man named Chris McCandless. The latest to perish was a 24-year-old newlywed.
McCandless – the self-proclaimed “Alexander Supertramp” – was one of those who went looking for trouble. He cut himself off from family and friends and set off into the wilderness to begin, in the words of his signed scrawl found after his death in an abandoned bus along the Stampede Road, “THE FINAL AND GREATEST ADVENTURE.
“THE CLIMATIC BATTLE TO KILL THE FALSE BEING WITHIN AND VICTORIOUSLY CONCLUDE THE SPIRITUAL PILGRIMAGE. TEN DAYS AND NIGHTS OF FREIGHT TRAINS AND HITCHHIKING BRING HIM TO THE GREAT WHITE NORTH. NO LONGER TO BE POISONED BY THE CIVILIZATIONS HE FLEES, AND WALKS ALONE UPON THE LAND TO BECOME LOST IN THE WILD.”
He found the ultimate in lost – death. Nobody comes back from that one.
More than a few Alaskans believe McCandless was simply nuts to use a politically incorrect term for the mentally ill. But ever since the writer John Krakauer concocted a mythical version of McCandless’s life in the wild and eulogized him in a supposed non-fiction work titled “Into the Wild,” there have been young people following in the footsteps of McCandless’s pilgrimage.
The folks in Healy in Central Alaska at the start of the Stampede Road would just as soon that end, but there is no sign that is happening or will. “Into the Wild” is now taught in some American schools as a way to “prompt class discussion on whether one should find oneself through isolation in nature and how such actions conflict with being an active member in society,” according to a teaching guide from Prestwick House. “McCandless’s attempt to inject himself totally into the natural wilderness also raises questions about the drawbacks of a society immersed in consumerism. Students can discuss views on consumer culture and material possessions.”
This exposure is sure to keep the pilgrims coming for decades on. It is inevitable more of them will get in trouble, and almost certainly more will die.
Eric Halfacre has made an effort to warn them at the Chris McCandless web page where he offers advice on how to get to the bus and a decent explanation of how to cross glacial rivers that is just about worthless to someone with no experience with such things.
“I have tried to put out accurate information about the hike and warn hikers about the danger, and that…has had limited success,” Halfacre messaged Monday.
No surprise there. Telling people what to do is a lot different from their learning what to do. And unless people are well trained, panic can in the blink of an eye zero out what they have learned.
The big surprise is that only three people – all women – have died to date trying to reach the McCandless bus. There have been other close calls. Nobody seems to have kept a count on those rescued, but rescues have become a regular summer feature.
The Tek – as many call the Teklanika – is a big, cold, fast glacial river. The state is full of these rivers, and it doesn’t take much for one to kill you. Crossingsoften don’t look that hard until you’re halfway in, and your legs go numb from the cold. Or you simply trip and fall down.
You can watch some hikers getting into serious trouble here:
They put on a good demonstration of what can go wrong on a river both too accessible and not accessible enough. The route to the river is often wet and muddy, but easily followed. Adventurous, mud-bogging four-wheelers drive there.
But the river is remote enough the state can’t seem to justify putting a bridge over it even though the state-owned Alaska Railroad in conjunction with the Chugach National Forest found $1.6 million in federal, recovery-act funding to put a 280-foot, world-class footbridge over the glacial Placer River just upstream from a perfectly serviceable railroad bridge to provide access to a trail that didn’t exist and to this day still doesn’t go much of anywhere.
“This Placer River Trail Bridge serves as critical linkage between the Spencer and Grandview Whistle Stops. When complete the Project will including over 30 miles of trails connected five Whistle Stops, cabins and campsites.”
Meanwhile, the unwary keep trooping down the Stampede Road on their pilgrimage to the bus. Halfacre has advocated bridging the river or, as a cheaper alternative, resurrecting a hand-tram the U.S. Geological Survey once used to cross the river.
“Healy would undoubtedly benefit from a bridge over the Tek, and if they don’t like ‘Into the Wild’ fans, I would think they would at least appreciate not having to send their fire department volunteers to rescue them anymore,” he said.
“It’s not about whether we should or should not glorify Chris. ‘Hikers’ who are horrendously unprepared for the river crossing, or in some cases just unlucky, are having to be rescued and occasionally dying at this crossing. Residents have tried a number of methods to dissuade people from going but it doesn’t work.
“A bridge would have solved every rescue or accident on the Stampede Trail that I am aware of. Many fans of Chris are opposed to the idea of a bridge because it ruins the adventurous nature of the hike as they see it, but I argue that is necessary. The USGS thought so when they put their cable up over the Tek, and that cable was there when Chris was there (though he was unaware of it) so a safe crossing is nothing new.”
Whether McCandless was aware or unaware of the cable is pure conjecture based on the fact he didn’t use it to cross the river to return to the safety of civilization in the summer of 1992. Had McCandless concluded the river impassable and known of the cable, the rational thing would have been to use it to reach safety.
But people don’t always behave rationally, and some have legitimately questioned McCandless’s state of mind. He once burned the last of his cash not to start a lifesaving fire, but to signify his separation from the material world. Many would see that act as irrational.
But the Krakauer-inspired myth of abandoning all to escape into the Edeneque wild of Alaska clearly resonates with some growing up today in a web-connected, Twitter-infected environment that has the gerbil cage of survival spinning so fast they can easily envision just wanting to get off.
That they come to Alaska and die warrants more than a shrug of the shoulders. When wealthier visitors fall victim to small-plane crashes, we don’t go “so what. Planes crash in Alaska all the time. What’s the big deal?”
Instead, the National Transportation Safety Board is called in to investigate. Exhaustive efforts are made to determine what caused the crash. And often suggestions are made as to equipment or behaviors that need to be changed to prevent future deaths.
The so-called “Magic Bus” of the Stampede Trail deserves similar consideration. Forget the baggage. McCandless might well have been a 24-year-old with issues that predictably led to his death, but trying to explain that to the true believers is no different than pointing out to a Born-Against Christian that there is no real evidence to support the idea there is a God of any sort.
They will be happy to construct evidence out of their belief that everything we see around us is the work of the Christian God. There are parallels to McCandless.
“McCandless himself wrote that he was waging a spiritual revolution to ‘kill the false being within.’ His method of battle was a kind of willful asceticism. It was as if he could pare away whatever was false or superficial, and, as he got more adept at it, he seemed almost to revel in the power of doing without, the euphoria of dispossession,” Chip Brown reported for The New Yorker at the time.
Trappist monks still fast for the ascetic experience.
“I tended to be more interested in the physical aspects of asceticism (or the joint nature of body and mind), and the monks tended to focus on mental and spiritual asceticism,” author John Durant wrote after joining some of them.
Some of the McCandless pilgrims might be better served by joining the monks, but telling them that is not going to change their behavior. Some of them will still come on the same strange pilgrimage to a dirty and decaying bus where a man incapable of surviving in the Alaska wilderness paid the ultimate price for his inadequacy.
Some think there is some greater meaning in that. They are entitled to their views. The greatest thing about the United States is that we are all free to believe whatever we want to believe.
In an effort to make a buck (nothing wrong with that) Krakauer turned the Stampede bus into an attractive nuisance. The deaths of those who died trying to cross the Tek are partly on him. That doesn’t, however, mean Alaskans should stand idly by and wait for more to die.
Halfacre is right in observing this is a problem that can be fixed. If, of course, people are willing to accept that there is a problem.
CORRECTION: An early version of this story had the body count wrong.